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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: Double Jeopardy


Less than 1% of all mathematicians are black. Of these, 25% are women.

when I was younger I never said, "I want to be a black female mathematician." In fact, I don't even remember saying that while I was in college. Nevertheless, I am a black female mathematician and I am classified as a "double minority." Just as women and blacks were reluctantly invited to share in the democracy of America, we still sometimes meet that same type of reluctance in the scientific community. Some black female mathematicians who I've talked to have stories about their graduate school experience that would make you think they went to school back in the '60s during the Civil Rights Era, as opposed to today. The flagrant and obvious discrimination that still takes place is a shameful reality in graduate programs across the country.

One day, I was in my departmental mailroom heating my frozen lunch. The microwave beeped upon completion. As I removed the food from the microwave, a professor walked in and asked "What's that? Gourmet dog food?" This supposedly seasoned professor may have recognized me as a student in the department, but I was never a student in his class (thank goodness). Thus, his statement clearly wasn't a joke between acquaintances. I was so shocked that I couldn't say anything. Immediately upon his departure from the scene, the department secretary ran up to me and apologized on his behalf. Her urge to apologize confirmed my thought that his statement was inappropriate, to say the least.

I've also noticed that very seldom is there any automatic support directed my way from women who are senior researchers. Here's another (true) story. At the beginning of graduate school I had major issues. The initial and most obvious problem was the social adjustment that I had to make as a black female coming from a small, historically black college/university. I was transitioning from a school of about 5000 students that was nestled in the center of a major and highly diverse city to a majority (i.e., predominately white) institution of about 27,000 students in what was "thought" to be a diverse city by some. Out of about 100 graduate students, there was only one other black female in the program and she was in her 3rd or 4th year.

It took me roughly a year and a half to adjust. During that period, my academics suffered. I took three graduate-level courses during my first year. Two were taught by males and the other by a female. The class taught by the female professor was difficult for most students, especially when she was teaching it. After taking the course, I felt so defeated. Her comments on my assignments made me feel simply stupid. I didn't do well at all. So at the suggestion of my advisor, I retook the course (with the same professor) as an independent study course in preparation for my upcoming written qualifying exam. At the end of the semester of the independent study course, she informed me that she would "give" me an A, but she didn't think I would pass the qualifying exam. I responded with a "thank you," smiled, and walked out of her office. The rage I felt was so intense that any response would have been a mistake.

Needless to say, I passed despite her continuous discouraging remarks. Unsurprisingly, I still harbored a lot of anger and frustration toward her. In preparation for my written exams, I mixed her hurtful, destructive remarks with my pain-stricken pride and raw irritation, creating the self-motivation I needed to reach my goal. After I passed the exam, she suddenly began acknowledging my presence in the hallway, the mailroom, and anywhere else I would see her on campus. This really pissed me off, because it seemed as though I had "proven" myself worthy by passing the exam. This bothered me. I hate not being acknowledged until I reveal my credentials or my abilities. (Not being acknowledged with an effortless "hello" or a simple nod of the head reminds me of the times when my ancestors were arbitrarily counted as 3/5 of a whole person. Of course, this was after we weren't acknowledged as people at all, but property instead ... it makes you wonder how much has really changed). Some may argue that I have "unresolved issues." Maybe, maybe not. But I do know that all of these "issues" are thrown onto me by other incomplete individuals. I doubt that my perspective is unique among other people of color.

The two aforementioned situations may be classified as "unfortunate" or even "stupid." But what is discrimination other than an unfortunate and stupid act? And remember, I am speaking of highly educated professors, not your typical unexposed, ignorant layman.

I was able to survive the psychological obstacles that were placed before me in graduate school--some weren't. While my experiences were clearly additional issues for me to deal with as a graduate student, too many people had it worse than I did. We all know that simply being a graduate student automatically comes with its own set of trials to overcome. Add to that being black and female and the roadblocks just seem to keep coming. They say that what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger ... sometimes I feel that my heart is so strong that it's made of iron.

Although I had a difficult time socially in grad school, financial concerns were never a problem. Because of programs with the aim of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities and females in the sciences, my financial journey to becoming a mathematician has been nothing short of a blessing. Out of 21 semesters of postsecondary education, I only paid for two out of my own pocket. In 1990, I started undergraduate school at Clark Atlanta University, where I had a 5-year scholarship from the Office of Naval Research to pursue my BS and MS in mathematics. In 1995, I was awarded a 3-year fellowship from the Department of Defense (DOD) to attend any graduate program of my choice. At the end of the DOD fellowship, the mathematics department picked me up as a research assistance for two semesters. For the remainder of my graduate studies, I was a predoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. So I'm very happy about not having any student loans dominating my budget!

The question still arises: "With all the opportunities for blacks to succeed, why aren't there more of us with advanced degrees in the sciences?" First of all, black scientists don't have a good-ol'-boy network in place to facilitate the process of guaranteed success. In the words of one of my favorite poets, Jill Scott, we have been "saturated with self-hatred." Unfortunately, self-hatred has become a "family gem" in the black community that is passed on for generations (just as racism is passed on). It takes more than a few government-funded science education programs to give a race of people back their self-pride and self-worth (which are essential for success). While these programs are undoubtingly necessary and productive, programs need to be reformed. We need to consider preparing disadvantaged children as early as the preschool level and continuing throughout the high school years in order to complement the college and graduate school programs that focus on increasing minorities in the sciences. The strategies to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the sciences have not been exhausted. Perhaps I should be more involved in the decision-making process regarding minorities and higher education. Not to worry ... I am on my way.

As a black female scientist, my agenda is different. I must do my job well and ensure that the pipeline for minorities to attain the terminal degree in science remains unclogged and flows at a rate with increasing velocity. This burden, as some put it, is my obligation that I describe simply as my pleasure.

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